Port St. Willow – Holiday (album) (Downtown Records)


Although it’s only March, and despite the fact the record was originally released in 2012, we may have just found one of the strongest contenders for album of the year.

Legendary producer, songwriter and ambient mastermind Brian Eno recently waxed poetic about Port St. Willow in a recent interview in Mother Jones. Speaking of the 2012 self-released album’, Eno said “I just heard a record last month by Port St. Willow, which I became completely entranced by. I just thought how amazing that somebody could take the same few chords, pretty much the same sorts of sounds – it’s quite hard to tell what is original about it, but I just know I’ve never heard it before. It’s such a fabulous record.”

Downtown Records agreed with Eno to such an extent that they have signed Port St. Willow and are reissuing ‘Holiday’, in order to make it available to a wide audience for the first time. The reissue includes the original 11-track album plus a brand new 25-minute, four-part suite called “Soft Light Rush”.

Port St. Willow began in 2009 by Nicholas Principe and his longtime friend and collaborator Jake Nussbaum with the first release coming in the form of the ‘Even//Wasteland‘ EP in the fall of 2010.

‘Holiday’ – the debut full length from Port St. Willow – is a tremendous body of work. An emotionally-charged meditation on family and self, the album is an exploration of new and old homes seen through the lens of a memory softened by distance and time.

A couple of weeks ago we reviewed the debut album from Deptford Goth (read our review of ‘Life After Defo‘) and while stylistically different, its consistency and strength as a whole, as well as its personal and meditative qualities, are reminiscent of ‘Holiday’. Extremely ambient, ethereal and moving, ‘Holiday’ will most certainly draw comparison to Bon Iver, and The Antlers though it’s more sprawling and less traditional both in terms of songwriting and instrumentation.

Sonically and emotionally, the aforementioned references may be useful, however Port St. Willow definitely has its own unique influences, exhibiting inflections of jazz, blues and soul. Another recurring comparison is Jeff Buckley. Of course, then there are the Thomas Köner-ish ambient qualities threaded in between and throughout tracks, swirling and ghost-like (think of the soundtrack atmospherics found in Mount Kimbie and Burial).

“Two Five Five Two” is an ambient introductory piece, which sounds like a field-recording of inside a cave. Rising in volume and luring the listener into the atmospheric world of Port St. Willow, the ambient soundtrack continues, laying underneath The Antlers-esque first musical track, “Hollow”. Toms pounds before a drum rhythm is introduced followed by Principe’s heavily reverberated melodic falsetto. The vocal supplies the song’s only melody but is later accompanied by a guitar arpeggio helping reinforce a sense of melody.

“Amawalk” is the most direct, melodic and moving number on the record and although comparison to Bon Iver seems natural it’s here that the first detection of a Jeff Buckley influence also appears (think “You and I”, “Opened Once”, and “Everybody Here Wants You”). With the addition of B-3 organ, “Amawalk” exhibits a gospel quality while the ambience gives it an ethereal quality while the drum shuffle and brass introduced at 4:15 gives the song a slightly jazzy feel.

The gorgeous and melodic “On Your Side” has a wonderfully transcendental nature to it while “Corners” has echoes of Buckley’s version of “Je n’en connais pas la fin” as well as a 50’s bluesy quality. “Corners” also features a much rawer and under-produced sound, almost like a demo, and this only accentuates the emotion.

‘Holiday’ as a whole is essentially made up of drum shuffles, swilling and swarming ambience, and subtle, sparing notation. Often times your mind registers that there is something laying down the notes but you can’t figure out quite what it is. Is it guitar? Is it a keyboard? Similarly, there is a bottom end but it’s not a bass-line per se (check out the again Buckley-reminiscent “Orphan” as an example of this). As odd as this description may sound, ‘Holiday’ is somehow melodic.

Like Bon Iver’s debut (‘For Emma, Forever Ago‘), which was recorded in a secluded cabin, ‘Holiday’ was recorded over the course of a year in Principe’s Oregon studio. It’s easy to imagine Principe, deep in isolation, pouring his soul into each and every song, revealing and releasing personal details as a form of catharsis. 

Tracks such as “Tourist”, “Put the Armor on the Mantle” and “Consumed” may offer fewer immediately distinguishable and remarkable qualities (though each do feature some wonderful vocal passages) but the Bon Iver-esque “North” is one the more concise songs on the album.

Of new track, “Soft Light Rush, Principe says it “felt somewhat as though it were a process of building different rooms in the same house which I could go spend time in and keep myself sane,” and continues, “where Holiday plays as an awakening, ‘Soft Light Rush’ is an acknowledgment of change, transition and the wading through these things together”. Though it sits besides the previous 11 tracks comfortably, the four-part suite does feel different to the previous 11 tracks, offering new influences and new moods but less entrancing, less emotional and instead more musical (including an acoustic guitar and vocal driven section).

If played infrequently ‘Holiday’ would certainly serve as a wonderful meditative piece, however upon multiple plays the songs appear more concise, the melodies more distinctive and a deeper emotional connection is formed.

A simply stunning and unique record, ‘Holiday’ by Port St. Willow will be released 1 April, 2013 via Downtown Records.

Listen to the song “Amawalk” below: